Elsie Belman answered a newspaper ad in 1974 that changed the Stafford County woman’s life.
“Meet exciting people; go exciting places,” it said.
The ad was the beginning of a career as a chauffeur to the stars. Belman became the first female limousine driver in Washington, and started her own company, Elsie Slyman Belman Stretch Limousine Service, from the Belman family compound on White Oak Road in Stafford in 1976. It counted the queen of England, future President Barack Obama and the Rolling Stones among its clientele.
“That was her niche. That was her calling,” her sister, Libya “Libby” Abilmona, said Monday as she sat at their mother’s kitchen table, a folder containing her sister’s funeral arrangements in front of her.
Elsie Belman, the hyperactive T. Benton Gayle Middle School student who once balled up a dress that she was sewing in home economics class in frustration and exclaimed that she was “no Betsy Ross,” died of breast cancer Saturday. She was 66.
Belman began her limo service with two vehicles, growing it to a fleet of 15 sedans, stretch limos and a minivan at the time of her death. Her nephew, Jason Belman, has been running the business for the last few years.
“Her most cherished clients were those in the Fredericksburg area,” said Abilmona. “Those were her bread and butter.”
Belman and her staff—which included her sister and her nephews when they were old enough—would drive clients to local dances, weddings and funerals. They’d take John Douglas and Clint Van Zandt, local FBI profilers, to catch flights for TV appearances, and bring speakers from the airport to appearances at the University of Mary Washington. Well-heeled parents especially liked for Belman to drive their children places because she was a woman.
But it’s the rich and famous whose stories Belman shared with The Free Lance–Star over the years, and the ones her sister recounted.
There was the time that Belman was driving Keith Richards from Washington to Richmond and traffic on Interstate 95 forced her to take him and his guests on an impromptu tour of downtown Fredericksburg. (She used to own Confederate Tours of Fredericksburg, a company she started in 1981, and later sold after fighting to get a parking space next to the city’s Visitor Center.)
When Belman had to stop for a light at the intersection of Amelia and Princess Anne streets, people standing on the corner did a double-take when they realized the Rolling Stones guitarist was looking at them from the back seat’s open window. Belman took off as soon as the light turned green, because it wouldn’t do to let fans approach the car, Abilmona said.
Billy Joel once came to Elsie Belman’s defense when a bicyclist almost ran her over as she opened the limo door. “Aren’t you going to apologize?” the woman on the bike barked at Belman, which prompted Joel to respond “by getting into the obnoxious bicyclist’s face,” according to an article that ran in the May 25, 2007, edition of The Free Lance–Star.
Other famous clients included Bruce Springsteen, who left his navy blue New York Yankees ball cap in her car, and Britney Spears, who forgot her pair of pink flip-flops.
Belman was quoted in a story that ran in the paper March 5, 2003, as saying that she didn’t dare ask Spears about the infamous kiss she shared with Madonna at the MTV Video Music Awards or tell her nephews the phony name the singer used when she registered at a Washington hotel. But she couldn’t resist trying on the flip-flops, which proved to be too big for her size 6 feet.
“I just wanted to be able to say I walked in her shoes,” Belman said.
Marvin Speed, one of Belman’s drivers, took Queen Elizabeth to the NASA Goddard Space Center and to Children’s Hospital while she was in Washington, and Belman drove Obama when he was still a senator from Illinois. Other high-profile clients included Sheryl Crow, Hank Williams Jr., Angelina Jolie and two of her children, and Brad Pitt. Belman once drove Jay–Z and his entourage to his mansion in New Jersey, and was invited to stay there so she didn’t have to get a hotel room.
Abilmona said that her sister was always professional behind the wheel, and didn’t chat with her clients unless they started the conversation.
Those who got to know her, especially if they were older, were impressed by how generous she was to her family. Belman took her sister and their mother, Fathelee Abilmona Belman, on vacations to nearly every state, picking up the tab for the hotels and airfare.
“She was a little woman,” Jason Belman said, “but she left big shoes to fill.”
Belman is survived by her mother, who lives in Stafford; her sister and her husband, Raja Abilmona, who live in Stafford; nephews Jason and Ryan Belman, who were like her own sons; nephew Anwar Abilmona and his wife Sahar–Radwan Abilmona, and nieces Jamal Terembes and Dalal Abilmona, all of Fredericksburg; and her grandmother, Nabila Balman of Lebanon.
She was preceded in death by her father, Hassan Slyman Belman, and her brother, Hassan Slyman Belman Jr.
A memorial service will be held from 2 p.m. to 3 p.m. Feb. 17 at Covenant Funeral Home, 4801 Jefferson Davis Highway in Fredericksburg.